Ellen Bass’ new poetry collection, Like a Beggar, exhibits the compassionate voice and celebratory worldview on display in her previous books The Human Line and the Lambda Literary Award-winning Mules of Love. Yet, Like a Beggar has a stronger focus on narratives than her earlier collections.
Some of the best poems in the book are patiently paced and vibrant with details, like “Women Walking,” which follows the conversation of two women on a stroll. As the characters in the poem discuss growing older, we discover small details about their lives: the speaker worries her partner finds her belly unattractive, and her friend asks, “Wouldn’t it be enough to be just fat or just old and dying?” The poem articulates worries we may have in common with the two women by bringing us into the moment-by-moment movement of their conversation. Bass achieves this by describing both the women’s banter and their walk in beautiful detail:
There’s a wall of sunflowers, each splendid
full-seeded head fringed with yellow flames,
and on the wide lawn ahead the yoga class unfurls supple arms toward the sun.
The aroma of whole-wheat bread baking mixes with the scent of salt and kelp.
Because we experience the walk with the characters, it is easy to empathize with their concerns; we, of course, are part of their dialogue, if only as observers.
All of the poems in the collection are alive with description. “What Did I Love,” which some readers may know from its publication in The New Yorker, revels in the carnage and effort of slaughtering chickens. Bass guides the reader through the process of killing the birds, cleaning their bodies, and packaging the carcasses. Though the subject matter may initially seem grim, the poem succeeds as a meditation on the pleasures of work. Similarly, “Another Story” explores the importance of storytelling as a way to fend off despair by taking joy in small details, like the salad the speaker makes while she tells her mother-in law about the time her partner coddled a baby bat between her breasts after it fell from the chimney.
The book also works in the tradition of Pablo Neruda’s odes (such as his “Ode to My Socks), which use careful observation of mundane objects and events to arrive at greater concepts. Bass employs odes to explore domestic comfort (“Ode to Repetition”), atheism (“Ode to the God of Atheists”), and the beauty of the female body (“Ode to Dr. Ladd’s Black Slit Skirt”), among other topics. These poems tackle imposing ideas by grounding them in the physical world. For example, in “Ode to Boredom,” the poet talks about a vacation in a quiet Italian town during which her family labored to keep occupied:
A farmer poured acorns for pigs
that squealed and snuffled. A shaggy horse
stood in a muddy corral. Once
we watched his bright penis emerge.
We bought clay and a tin of watercolors,
fashioning a miniature sty, painting the pigs hot pink,
rice grains filling their trough. I was bored
for the first time since childhood.
One night we sat in the lobby of the only hotel,
watching cartoons in Italian. How the days opened,
space widening between hours.
Bass has such a clear eye for specifics that she transforms pedestrian topics into individual and lived-in art objects.
What allows the poems in Like a Beggar to endure is that they praise the world in which we live, including its beauty and hardships. As the poet writes in “Relax”:
So here’s the view, the breeze, the pulse
in your throat. Your wallet will be stolen, you’ll get fat,
slip on the bathroom tiles in a foreign hotel
and crack your hip. You’ll be lonely.
Oh, taste how sweet and tart
the red juice is, how the tiny seeds
crunch between your teeth.
The poem acts as an appropriate thesis for the collection as a whole, which digs into the dirt of the everyday. Ellen Bass pays witness to our small but remarkable lives, and that reverence makes her book a success.
Like a Beggar
By Ellen Bass
Copper Canyon Press
Paperback, 9781556594649, 7o pp.
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Before delving into any of Tom Spanbauer’s books, it is best to take note of the two central principles of his school of Dangerous Writing:
1) What makes writing dangerous is something personal, very small, and quiet… to go to parts of ourselves where there is an old silence, where it is secret, where it is dark and sore… to go to where we’ve never gone before, writing down what scares the hell out of us. Eventually to the very foundation and structure of how we perceive, and in this investigation, we can challenge old notions of who we are.
2) When you meet someone for the first time, be kind, and look them in the eye. Everyone has a battle raging inside of them.
—Spanbauer, quoted at a Dangerous Writing Workshop, Esalen Institute, June 2007
In I Loved You More, Spanbauer deftly executes these two Dangerous Writing principles. Compared to his previous novels, one senses that I Loved You More was the most difficult and painful for him to write. For the first time, Spanbauer expresses his personal struggle coping with HIV/AIDS through narrator and main character Ben Grunewald. It is also the first book where Spanbauer addresses bisexuality. Unlike Spanbauer’s traditional naïve, sweetly bashful protagonists, Ben is an unapologetic sixty-year-old who admits that sometimes he hates people who don’t have to worry about dying. While Ben is no angel, Spanbauer gives him grace and soft eloquence, with a touch of burnt tongue, that will make the reader want to be kind and look him in the eye while he reminisces.
Spanbauer’s main characters typically fall in love with people who are often seen as culturally “taboo” in some way—an African American drag queen in The City of Shy Hunters, a Native American man accused of pedophilia in Now is the Hour. While out and proud Ben Grunewald cannot resist telling the story of his first love and blood brother in Idaho, Native American Ephraim Owlfeather, Ephraim remains in Idaho while Ben moves to New York City. It is there, while working odd jobs and taking writing classes, that Ben encounters striking—but straight—author and writing teacher Hank Christian. Spanbauer’s writing advice, inherited from his mentor Gordon Lish, now is channeled through the macho, working class Italian Christian, who shouts “Latinate!” when Ben tries to hide behind fancy words when describing the complexities of love, sex, and relationships. No good old Anglo-Saxon word will do for Ben when he wants to talk about attraction; only “propinquity” will do. Propinquity delights and challenges; it can lead to pleasure or trouble. Ben spends most of his life negotiating his propinquity for men as well as women.
Ben has three “men” inside of him who guide his behavior—the macho Big Ben, the anxious Little Ben, and the Running Boy when he is overwhelmed by fear. Hank, while he never says so outright, is guided by similar spirits. Both Ben and Hank must negotiate all the ins and outs of gay and straight male etiquette, from figuring out who holds the door open for whom to how to dress when you go to a gay bar. While Hank is willing to step over some heteronormative boundaries with Ben, he is still primarily attracted to women, and so Hank and Ben bounce in and out of their relationship. Hank marries, has a son, and gets divorced, while Ben meets different men, engages in casual sex and substance abuse with them, and gets sick. At the lowest point in his life, Ben meets Ruth, a beautiful woman who cares for him while he is sick. Ben falls in love with Ruth. Then Hank, dying from cancer, shows up again. How will it all end up? Totally gay Ben Grunewald opens and closes his looping narrative on love, relationships, and survival with this simple equation:
More than likely, you’re like me and think that something like this could never happen to you. That you could love a man, then love a woman—two extraordinary people, two unique ways of loving, from different decades, on different ends of the continent, and what happens is something you could never in a million years have planned. There you are the three of you, dancing the ancient dance whose only rule is with three add one, if not, subtract. If three doesn’t find four, three goes back to two.
—Tom Spanbauer, I Loved You More
Bisexuality is one of the last taboos in the LGBT and heterosexual worlds. Religion, the media, and the American legal structure only recognize committed relationships between two people, with the assumption that each person is only attracted to one sex or the other, but not both. Although Kinsey had established long ago that a significant percentage of Americans are bisexual, those who identify as bisexual are often condemned as “experimenters” who are incapable of commitment, or “not really queer” if they are engaged in monogamous heterosexual relationships. A clumsier writer would clutter up a story about a gay man simultaneously in love with a “straight” guy and a woman with denial and angst; Spanbauer simply unpacks imagery, events, and dialogue without judgment, allowing the reader to come to their own conclusions. If anything, I Loved You More provides an empathic view of bisexual relationships as the most natural in the world, perhaps the most generous expression of love and shared strength for the survival of humanity.
Tom Spanbauer. (2014).
Wexelbaum, R. (2008, Spring). Dangerous writing. Lambda Book Report, 16 (1/2), 44
Wexelbaum, R. (2009). “Tom Spanbauer.” Encyclopedia of Contemporary LGBTQ Literature of the United States, Volume 2, ed. Emmanuel S. Nelson.
I Loved You More
By Tom Spanbauer
Hardcover, 9780986000782, 468 pp.